The Ultimate Trick to Crafting Complex Characters
At the heart of a great story almost always lies a great character. While there are of course exceptions in which the setting or the plot carry the narrative, in most circumstances a great story isn’t without a stand-out character or two.
Because of this, all writers devote time to crafting characters with the hopes that they are unique and memorable.
How each writer does this varies, but usually there is a strong focus on making the character complex, flawed, and inherently human. As writers and storytellers – but also the people who consume the stories we tell – we are always looking for what makes us human in stories, which is why a complex character is so appealing.
But as much as we may understand the word “complex,” what really is the difference between a character that is interesting and flawed and one that isn’t? It’s not like your novel or film is filled with complex characters and perfect, simple, flawless ones. So, before we can learn how to craft complex characters, let’s look at what really defines a character as being that way.
What Makes a Character “Complex”?
There are two types of characters in every story – flat characters and round characters.
Flat characters are usually two-dimensional characters (not literally) who do not change over the course of the narrative, whereas round characters usually experience some sort of change and arc throughout the story.
Neither type of character is necessarily superior to the other. Flat characters often are many people’s favorite part of a story because they often still have unique characteristics, provide comedic relief, remain supportive, or just are generally entertaining.
A good story balances both flat and round characters. Whether that balance is having an entire cast of flat characters and one round character or having three round characters and no one else, is dependent on the story and the author. There’s no hard rule here.
However, more often than not, the protagonist of your narrative is a round character brimming with complexities.
While there are instances of flat protagonists, such as Llewyn in Inside Llewyn Davis, most of the time writers strive to create flawed, interesting, and complex characters to carry their story. And why wouldn’t they? Creating complex characters is fun!
Now, it’s not to say your flat characters are flawless. Far from it! But instead of experiencing change over the course of the narrative, flat characters remain the same, meaning it is often difficult to really explore their complexities to the same degree.
So, while flat characters can be as complex as their round counterparts, fleshing out this complexity is often far less important since the narrative likely isn’t focusing on these flat characters. Instead, it usually focuses on the characters who change, and whose complexities are far more important to nail as a result.
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Why Complexity is So Important
But besides a writer's desire to tell a good story – why else is complexity so important?
As I already mentioned, complexity makes our characters seem human and relatable. Nobody is perfect and as much as we don’t want to admit it, we want to see characters fail and behave just like we would.
But beyond that, having a complex character makes it easier for you to snowball conflicts and create more issues in the narrative. Without flaws – especially the ones that are not easily resolved – your character likely won’t struggle with much to overcome, at least internally.
And while you can create a purely external narrative, with all of the conflicts deriving from the world and narrative, without those internal flaws and complexities powering your protagonist, the story often will read as boring or happenstance.
Additionally, the complex characters – whether they’re protagonists or antagonists – often are the characters your audience obsesses over. They’re the ones your audience talks about and tries to understand, the ones that people dispute about and argue over their intentions, the ones that no matter how long people analyze them, they can’t be perfectly nailed down.
Some wonderful examples of these characters include Nina from the novel Chronicle of the Murdered House, Claude Frollo from the novel Notre-Dame de Paris, Ana from the film Cria Cuervos, and Martha from the play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
The Ultimate Trick to Crafting Complex Characters
However, it’s one thing to understand why complexity is so essential to a great story, but another thing altogether to create said complexity.
While many books on the craft suggest looking towards flaws and quirks – things that will definitely help you in creating a complex character – I have found that there is one thing strikingly apparent in every single complex character – and therefore human – that immediately helps you craft a truly unique and human character for your story.
Contradictions are undoubtedly one of the most essential features of every human that walks this earth. Contradictions speak to our flaws, our errors, our beliefs, our fears, and most of all the enormous blind spot that comes with only knowing the perspective of ourselves.
It’s what makes characters frustrating and loveable at the same time. It’s why we love to hate characters like Don Draper and Walter White – characters who have such strong beliefs and yet often do things that are inherently against everything they stand for.
Now, your contradictions don’t always have to be obvious, nor do they have to relate to someone being a hypocrite. Contradictions can exist in many forms and often can lead to a character neglecting their own health or well-being instead of hurting others.
Look at Celeste in Big Little Lies, a woman who can passionately stand up and defend others as a lawyer, but when abused by her husband, she refuses to speak up and defend herself.
Even if you are certain you have a character – such as a devout priest – that cannot have any contradictions given their circumstances, your character is still likely ridden with contradictions, even if their life goal and objective is to avoid such human traits.
It is an unavoidable human feature, and one that you can find in even the best of your characters.
How to Create Contradictions in Your Characters
But how do you create contradictions? It’s not as simple as looking at a list of flaws or quirks – though even that task proves to make finding the ideal flaw difficult. Not to mention there’s the fine line of what is a contradiction and a complete oversight on your part as the writer, for often we can confuse complexity and contradictions for your character behaving as two totally different people.
Though a lot of contradictions in your characters will emerge through trial and error, there are some ways you can get the creative process going faster and find your contradictions sooner rather than later.
Look to their flaws
One of the easiest places to start looking for contradictions is to look to your character’s flaws.
This is especially true because finding a flaw for your character – even if you don’t have one yet – is much easier to do than creating a contradiction out of thin air.
Once you know your character’s flaws – remember they can have more than one – start mind mapping some different ways that flaw can cause them tangible problems, but also map out ways they will either ignore the flaw or criticize it in someone else.
This way, you’ll have some ideas for different contradictions that are already in line with their character.
Write down their views and beliefs
Knowing your character’s views and beliefs is absolutely essential to knowing how to create contradictions. This is because your character’s views and beliefs they espouse are going to be the very things they later contradict in one way or another.
If you can, try to connect the views and beliefs to your character’s flaws, giving them beliefs about their flaws, as well as about other people's flaws and behaviors.
Make note about the views they tell other people about and the ones they keep to themselves. The former beliefs usually indicate a more visible contradiction, whereas the latter indicate a more hidden and subtle one.
Write down their actions and behavior
Looking to your character’s flaws and beliefs, jot down actions and behaviors that derive from those two things. Knowing these actions and behaviors will then give you some tangible ways to use contradictions in your story without straying from who your character really is.
For example, if you have a character who is stubborn and believes wholeheartedly that the law should be abided at all times, they might behave a bit uptight or strict with their children.
Then, later, when you create contradictory scenes and moments, you can look back to your character’s actions and see that your character tends to be strict, so in their moment of contradiction, they likely will either use this strictness to ignore their hypocrisy, or ease up on their strictness to allow this contradiction to exist.
Use action to have them do something against what they believe
Once you know your character’s flaws, views and beliefs, and general action and behavior, you’ll want to take their belief and have them do something that completely contradicts that belief.
Usually, this means having them do something that is subtly against their own beliefs, and is done in a way that they cannot recognize because of their flaw.
Take the law-abiding citizen from the previous section. Let’s say this person strictly follows all of the laws and doesn’t think it is forgivable to break the law. Maybe this person even criticizes a politician from the opposite side for breaking the law.
But then, when their favorite candidate or politician – or maybe even sports star – is caught breaking the law, they are quick to ignore this and brush over it, and are too stubborn to even admit the truth.
As you can see, this contradiction is a minor one. It isn’t going to be something that changes the plot of your story immensely, but it will shape how real your character feels to your audience.
Though this may not seem as intuitive at first, with a little bit of practice and a lot of playing around, you’ll be sure to find a contradiction in your character that your audience will later rave about.